No question Tracy Ford brings an intense fervor to training players. But complaints of intimidation put him under scrutiny in a probe of recruiting and coaching violations at Bellevue High School.
A few miles from Bellevue High School, Tracy Ford has built an elite training facility with the help of money and mentoring from the school’s top football booster.
The gym gleams in Bellevue’s blue and yellow, colors that Ford says he simply likes. At the building’s entrance hangs Ford’s jersey from Bellevue’s 2003 state title, one of 11 the powerhouse team has won in an unprecedented 15-year run.
Ford’s tight connection to the program — he served as a coach and continues to work with individual players — has landed him in the middle of a school-district investigation into illegal recruiting and out-of-season coaching. Officials have examined not only his role in those broader allegations, but also the way he treats players.
Ford vehemently disputes an accusation that he verbally abused one student athlete, saying he coaches hard but with respect for the hundreds of prospects he nurtures — from elementary-school trainees to Bellevue achievers to those trying to break into the NFL.
Bellevue football investigation:
Video clips obtained by The Seattle Times, however, show Ford speaking about athletes in outbursts laced with profanity and racial epithets, his intensity straying toward intimidation.
In one video, Ford brags about confronting a high-school player who had taken issue with his criticism. Ford recalls his own remarks from the encounter: “You think you scaring me, little (racial epithet)? I’ll beat your (expletive) ass.”
In another clip, Ford describes watching a disappointing scene unfold in the gym: some players on their phones, others lounging, lethargic, disrespectful, too comfortable.
As Ford describes it in the video, he turned off the facility’s music and confronted the group of NFL prospects, telling them an agent had already invested thousands of dollars in the men.
“Did you guys think the agent found you? Because he didn’t,” Ford says in the video. “I said, ‘(Epithet), I found you. I personally hand-picked you guys and sold you to the agent. And the agent paid me for you guys. This is modern-day slavery, man. This is a (expletive) business. I sold you like a slave owner. Like a slave owner.’”
While profanity and racial slurs are not uncommon in schools and locker rooms, the use of such language by an adult authority figure addressing students has upset some Bellevue parents. And an independent investigator found Ford had violated school district policy “prohibiting harassment, intimidation and bullying.”
Ford reiterated Saturday that he’s never threatened to beat up any student athletes. Asked about the “slave owner” remark, he said others have previously likened professional sports to slavery as an analogy.
He initially described the video as that of a private conversation in his private office. But after viewing the video clips, Ford said by email: “Those videos were recorded as a part of a fiction film that was filmed in my personal business … it has been taken completely out of context.”
A source told The Times that the videos were shot as behind-the-scenes footage for a documentary.
Butch Goncharoff, who has led the Wolverines to their remarkable success in his 15 years as Bellevue’s head coach, has not returned calls seeking comment.
In 2003, Ford arrived at Bellevue High for his senior year after moving to the Eastside suburb from the Federal Way area. He said in an interview that his mom had taken a job in the area at Overlake Hospital and forced him to move.
After helping Bellevue win a state title — part of the school’s remarkable run of 11 championships — Ford, a running back and cornerback, went on to play at the University of Idaho and Portland State University. He later played one year with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
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Ford said he developed a passion for training players while working with one of his mentors, Chad Ikei, a trainer who now works in Hawaii. So Ford returned to the Bellevue area a few years ago with plans to build a training center that would prep players for the NFL.
John Connors, a venture capitalist and former Microsoft executive who also leads Bellevue High’s powerful football booster club, said he put up the initial seed money in the past few years for Ford Sports Performance. He got to know Ford after taking his sons to train with him.
“He’s a great guy who kids and parents like and admire,” Connors said.
One of their earliest conversations concerned the facility’s perceived association with Bellevue High School, Connors said. Connors, whose son was a defensive star on the Bellevue team last year, made it a point for the training venture to reach out to every high school in the area and avoid building a reputation as a feeder program for Bellevue.
Connors calls his business relationship with Ford a partnership and said the two currently “touch base at least weekly and sit down to do a business review at least every month.” Ford said he simply sees Connors as a mentor and that Connors has never suggested the training facility provide special support for the high school.
Ford became a strength and conditioning coach at Bellevue in 2012 and said he continued that job through 2013 before moving to a contract role in 2014. Still, the booster club’s website recently listed him as the “head strength coach.” Ford’s website had a similar characterization until the school district demanded sometime during this school year that he edit it.
Now Ford’s close work with Bellevue has placed him at the center of the school district’s scrutiny. John Harrison, executive director of schools for the district, said in a memo to Ford that they were examining “several” allegations that Ford had directed athletes toward Bellevue. Ford denies that, noting he works with players from all over the area.
One parent’s complaint about Ford’s actions triggered an independent investigation earlier this year, according to records.
In that case, Ford addressed the Bellevue football players in the school’s weight room in December, three days after the team lost the Class 3A state championship game. Ford cursed at players and eventually singled out one of them in front of his teammates, the investigator found.
Ford and that player ended up in a heated confrontation. “I can beat the (expletive) out of you,” Ford told the player, according to the case summary.
In the video obtained by The Times, captured earlier in 2014, Ford describes an eerily similar incident. Speaking at times to someone out of view and, at times, directly into the camera, he recalls telling a player he was weak while the player defended himself as the strongest on the team. Ford says the confrontation escalated when the player started “lipping at me in front of the team.”
Ford describes himself making the threat, then says the player later called to apologize to him. He then describes a different conversation in which he reiterated that the player seemed strong only because “there’s a lot of (expletive) little white boys on our damn team.”
It wasn’t the only time Ford had acted that way, according to the father of a different player. The parent said his son has come home on several occasions and expressed concern about how Ford was verbally abusing players and acting in an aggressive manner. The parent spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution against his son.
Ross Connors, a graduating Bellevue senior and son of the venture capitalist involved in Ford’s business, disputed that Ford has been aggressive toward players. He said he witnessed the December encounter and that it was the player, not Ford, who made the threatening comment.
Connors bemoaned that the investigator spoke only to the accuser and not to any of the dozens of other players at the meeting. The investigator did interview other assistant coaches who witnessed the confrontation.
Along with the December encounter, the school district has explored whether Ford was involved in improper recruiting. State rules governing high-school athletics prohibit anyone connected to a team from encouraging athletes to transfer for the purpose of sports.
Ford has denied encouraging players to go to Bellevue or any particular school, noting that he works with players around the region and wants all of them to succeed.
In January, while examining whether Ford had previously directed players to Bellevue, district officials encountered a more immediate issue. The parent of a player from Seattle’s Lakeside School called someone at Bellevue High to inquire about having the player join the team. The parent said he was calling because Ford, who was training the player, had suggested looking at Bellevue, according to an email in which a school employee described the phone call.
The school district also has looked into whether Bellevue was involved in out-of-season coaching of players, something forbidden by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA). On June 2, school officials self-reported a violation because players were encouraged, and in some cases directed, to participate in an offseason conditioning program. As part of the punishment the school proposed for itself, and the KingCo Conference accepted, the team was placed on probation for three years. Goncharoff received a two-game suspension, and an unnamed assistant coach received a three-game suspension.
Ford said players who come work at his gym in the offseason are not required to do so. Ross Connors agreed, saying it was simply recommended as a way to improve.
Concerns about Ford’s actions led the school district in January to ban him from district property for a year. After Ford appealed, the district scaled back the sanctions, instead prohibiting him from renting the high school’s facilities until 2016.
Ford said he received notice of a new ban last week after The Times first reported details of the investigation and sanctions. The district confirmed Ford’s status to The Times on Friday (June 12): “Mr. Ford is prohibited from renting any Bellevue School District facility and from accessing any Bellevue School District property. He can request that we review this decision after June 30, 2016.”
John Connors, the Bellevue booster and Ford’s supporter, said he still believes in Ford.
“He’s a young guy who I have seen grow and improve and learn from mistakes,” Connors said in a text message. “I will support him fully in what will be (a) tough period for him.”
Ford said he’s disappointed by how the district has targeted him. He said he loves being around the young athletes and just wants to help them.
“It makes me sad. I’ve done so much for this community,” Ford said. “I’ve done nothing but be a positive role model.”